Cost Share for Virginia Farmers to Protect Soil and Water
Robust funding and streamlined paperwork for Fiscal Year 2024
The Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation is offering a total of $124.6 million in cost-share funding for farmers to adopt any of 70+ different best management practices to improve the health of their soils and protect Virginia’s waterways including the Chesapeake Bay watershed. Farmers can receive up to $300,000 to adopt practices such as cover crops, nutrient management plans, riparian buffer plantings, fencing to keep livestock out of streams, and alternative watering system to make stream exclusion practical. In addition, this year’s program has adopted program changes that simplify the application process and record keeping requirements, especially for smaller scale operations. Learn more about the Virginia Agriculture Best Management Practices Cost Share Program (VACS) by contacting your local soil and water conservation district. Find yours at https://www.dcr.virginia.gov/soil-and-water/swcds. The program runs through June 30, 2024.
Farm Bill Update and Next Steps
At this point, it is clear that Congress will not complete the 2023 Farm Bill in time for the President to sign it into law before the current Farm Bill expires on September 30. The bad news is that this means that a few programs will be suspended until the new Farm Bill is passed and signed, though most programs including conservation, Organic Research and Extension Initiative (OREI), Local Agriculture Markets Program (LAMP) and Farmer Opportunities Training and Outreach (FOTO) will continue at current funding levels.
The good news is that this gives us a little more time to build support within Congress for key provisions that will make the 2023 Farm Bill more supportive of conservation, soil health, and climate friendly agriculture. So, at the risk of redundancy, this month’s policy installment will once again outline ongoing initiatives, priorities, and marker bills for which to advocate with Virginia’s two conservation-minded Senators and your Representatives.
Make IRA Conservation Funding Part of Farm Bill Baseline
One year ago, the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) was passed and signed into law. It included historic investments in combating climate change and building our society’s resilience to its impacts. These included some $20 billion in conservation program funding, with new funding for a list of “climate smart agriculture and forestry practices” implemented by farmers participating in the Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP), Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP), and other USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) programs. See the recent NSAC blog on IRA implementation within USDA and the great popularity and strong demand for conservation program participation in general and the IRA funded practices in particular.
As the 2023 Farm Bill takes shape, the future holds one of two possible fates for this historic investment in soil- and climate-friendly agriculture. Conservation-minded members of both Senate and House Agriculture Committees would like to make this funding a permanent part of the Farm Bil baseline (thereby providing a substantial increase in funding for EQIP, CSP, and RCPP for at least the five years to be covered by the new Farm Bill). On the other hand, fiscal conservatives would like to simply rescind (terminate) as much of the IRA conservation investment as possible.
Therefore, ensuring that the $20 billion in IRA conservation/ climate-smart funding becomes an integral part of regular Farm Bill funding, devoted specifically to climate mitigation and resilience, is now a top priority in Farm Bill advocacy efforts. Call your Representative today – especially if s/he is Republican – and let them know how vitally important this IRA funding is for farmers struggling to stay in the business of feeding America in the face of increasingly extreme and erratic weather. And let Virginia’s one member of the House Agriculture committee – Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-7th-VA) – know that we greatly appreciate her support for IRA climate-smart funding and encourage her to do all she can to make it permanent in the 2023 Farm Bill. Although our
Expand Funding for the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP)
The CSP supports producers to undertake a whole-farm approach to resource and land stewardship, including soil health, protecting water resources, mitigating net greenhouse gas emissions, and building climate resilience. Currently funded at about $1 billion per year (which represents significant cuts in the 2014 and 2018 Farm Bills), the CSP can fund only about 25% of qualified applicants. For this reason, the Agriculture Resilience Act (ARA) calls for increasing CSP funding to $4 billion per year in order to realize the program’s potential for building a sustainable and climate-friendly agricultural system. Advocating for this increase in CSP funding is another top conservation priority in ongoing Farm Bill advocacy.
Organic Science and Research Investment Act
On July 13, Senator John Fetterman (D-PA) introduced the Organic Science and Research Investment (OSRI) Act, the Senate companion bill to the SOAR Act introduced in the House this past April. Six other Senators joined as original co-sponsors: Cory Booker (D-NJ), Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Bob Casey (D-PA), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Peter Welch (D-VT), and Ron Wyden (D-OR). Key provisions of the OSRI Act include:
- An Initiative to coordinate and expand organic research across the USDA Agriculture Research Service (ARS), National Institute for Food and Agriculture (NIFA), National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS), and Economic Research Service (ERS). The Initiative will review USDA-funded organic research on a five-year cycle and make recommendations for additional research including new cultivars and livestock breeds, organic weed, insect, and disease IPM, climate resilience, and ecosystem services.
- Direct the ARS to devote a percentage of its field research acreage to organic that is at least equal to the organic market share (currently about 7%).
- Increase annual mandatory funding for the Organic Research and Extension Initiative (OREI) by $10 million each year, reaching $100 million in 2028 and add traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) and climate mitigation and resilience as program priorities.
- Establish first time Congressional funding authority for the Researching the Transition to Organic Agricultural Production (formerly “Organic Transitions” or ORG) at $10 million per year, increasing to $12 million in 2027-28.
- Increase funding for the Organic Data Initiative (ODI) to $10 million/year.
Strengthening Organic Agriculture Research (SOAR)
House of Representatives
This is the House version of the organic research bill, introduced in April by Representatives Dan Newhouse (R-WA), Jimmy Panetta (D-CA), and Chellie Pingree (D-ME). The Strengthening Organic Agriculture Research (SOAR) Act would increase funding for USDA organic agriculture research, including the Organic Research and Extension Initiative (OREI), Organic Transitions Program (ORG), and Organic Data Initiative (ODI). See the SOAR Act one-pager written by Organic Farming Research Foundation (OFRF) for more information.
Converting our Waste Sustainably (COWS) Act,
House and Senate
On June 23, Representatives Jim Costa (D-21st-CA), David Valadao (R-22nd-CA), and Chellie Pingree (D-1st-ME) introduced H.R. 4327, the Converting Our Waste Sustainably (COWS) Act, a bill to direct the Secretary of Agriculture to establish an alternative manure management program that reduces methane emissions (by transitioning away from liquid anaerobic storage) and increases carbon sequestration (through manure composting). Senators Alex Padilla (D-CA), Sherrod Brown (D-OH) and Martin Heinrich (D-NM) have introduced a companion bill in the Senate, S 2479.
Based on the successful and popular Alternative Manure Management Practices (AMMP) program in California (in which 147 dairies across the state have enrolled thus far), the COWS Act would support livestock operations to convert away from liquid manure handling systems, which emit lots of methane and threaten water quality, to more ecologically sound alternatives. These include windrow, in-vessel, or aerated static pile composting; composting bedded pack; solar drying, and other solid manure management systems, as well as transition to pasture-based management and rotational grazing that distributes manure more evenly across the land, thus reducing greenhouse gas emissions and water pollution. Check out this COWS Act summary for and bill text for more.
In advocating for the COWS Act in Virginia, emphasize its potential to protect water quality, especially throughout the Chesapeake Bay watershed. Protecting and restoring ecological integrity of the Chesapeake is a top priority for Senators Tim Kaine and Mark Warner – if they hear from enough of us that the COWS Act would further this goal, they might sign on as cosponsors.
Agrivoltaics Research and Demonstration Act of 2023
Senate S. 1778
The bipartisan Agrivoltaics Research and Demonstration Act, introduced by Senators Martin Heinrich (D-NM) and Mike Braun (R-IN) would support collaborative efforts by USDA and the Department of Energy (DoE) to research, develop, demonstrate, and support widespread adoption of a new approach to integrating solar photovoltaic energy production with sustainable farming. The bill would authorize $15 million per year to research and develop regionally optimized solar panel design and deployment for different cropping and grazing systems, and to establish of a network of demonstration sites linked to the USDA Regional Climate Hubs.
The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) summer meetings included a tour of the nation’s largest agri-voltaic installation – five acres of organic vegetables integrated with solar panels – has given promising results for both vegetable yields and energy production. Mounted six to eight feet above ground on aces that move through the day to maximize solar energy harvest, the panels provide 30-40% shade which reduces heat and drought stress on the crops without seriously reducing yields or productivity. I had been mildly skeptical of agrivoltaics until I saw this successful demonstration. I now consider this marker bill a priority for the 2023 Farm Bill – and at $15 million its price tag appears small enough to garner widespread bipartisan support.
Other Marker Bills
The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) is also supporting the following marker bills and seeking to integrate them into the 2023 Farm Bill. For more information on these bills, see the Policy brief in the July, 2023 issue of the VABF enewsletter.
Small Farms Conservation Act – Senate S. 2180
This bill establishes a small farm subprogram within EQIP.
Working Trees, Grasslands, and Buffers for Conservation Act
This bill expands agroforestry and grasslands programs within USDA and allows grazing and harvest practices that are compatible with conservation goals.
Seeds and Breeds for the Future Act
This Act commits $75 million per year in USDA research funding for development of new public, regionally adapted, and climate resilient crop cultivars and livestock breeds.
Local Farms and Food Act – Senate S 1205 and House HR 2723
This Act strengthens the Local Agriculture Markets Program (LAMP), the Gus Schumacher Nutrition Incentives Program, and the Senior Farmers Market Nutrition Program.
Relief for Farmers Hit with PFAS Act – House HR 1517 and Senate S 747
This bill provides economic relief for farmers facing losses related contamination with perfluoro alkyl substances (PFAS) also known as “forever chemicals.”
Agriculture Resilience Act (ARA) – House HR 1840 and Senate 1016
ARA is the “roadmap” climate-in-agriculture bill, reintroduced this year by Representative Chellie Pingree (D-ME) and Senator Martin Heinrich (D-NM) , upon which many of the above initiatives are based.
How to Take Action on the Farm Bill:
Contact Senators Mark Warner (call 202-224-2023, or email Jahnavi Patel, Legislative Correspondent at Jahnavi_patel@kaine.senate.gov) and Tim Kaine (call 202-224-4024 or email Taylor Durbin, Legislative Correspondent at Taylor_Durbin@warner.senate.gov), and your Representative (check their website for their DC phone number). Introduce yourself, state how climate or other challenges affect your farming operation and how the bill(s) you are advocating can help you better meet the challenges and contribute to solutions. Then ask them to protect IRA climate-in-agriculture funding and./or co-sponsor specific bills.
If you are in Rep. Abigail Spanberger’s district (7th), your advocacy is especially important as she serves on the House Agriculture Committee and chairs the forestry and conservation subcommittee. Call her office at 202-225-2815 or email her staff person for agriculture, Isabel Coughlin at Isabel.Coughlin@mail.house.gov. Thank her for cosponsoring the ARA, and then ask for support on other bills.
Other News and Blog Posts from NSAC
NSAC held its summer meeting in Boulder, CO, including a panel on water issues in Colorado, visits from two Members of Congress from the state, and the nation’s largest vegetable-growing agrivoltaics operation.
USDA awarded more than $300 million for 50 projects focused on improving access to land, capital and markets for young, beginning, and minority producers.
USDA is accepting applications for its new Discrimination Financial Assistance Program which provides financial assistance to producers who have experienced past discrimination in USDA loan programs. Application deadline is October 31, 2023.